Black History Month 2019: Is Criminal Justice Reform At Last Achievable? - Recent News

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Posted by: Wesley Bell on Feb 1, 2019

Wesley BellWesley Bell
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney

Originally published in the February 2019 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine.  View in the archives.

This is a pivotal moment in black history, which in reality is our common history. American history. We are a community, a region, and a nation divided by race. But we also are a community united by a shared belief in “equal justice under law.”

The recent acknowledgment of injustice and the growing concern for black lives has gained enough salience to make achievable the reforms necessary in our justice system.

The events in Ferguson that came to the national stage in 2014 amplified the need to make urgent, rapid change. For 43 years, we have taken February to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to our country’s history. But at the same time, we have continued to funnel black and brown people into our jails and prisons at an alarming rate. If we seek a more fair and just society for all, we should use this month to seize the moment to achieve fundamental change.

I am optimistic. There is a better way, and never before has it been so achievable. Across our country and Missouri, true bipartisan commitment to reforming the criminal justice system has emerged. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s encouragement of innovative approaches to ending mass incarceration, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s actions against de facto debtors’ prisons, and bills being introduced by legislators on both sides of the aisle point toward success for this critical effort. Jackson County Prosecutor Baker ceased prosecuting small marijuana possession following the November passage of Constitutional Amendment 2 (legalizing medical marijuana); my office has the same policy. The Missouri Supreme Court’s new rules on bail take effect statewide July 1; my office is following them today.

The reforms we seek are critical to improving the future for all residents of St. Louis, especially those who are poor. Though racial bias can affect one’s experience with the criminal justice system, poverty also contributes. Poverty is a condition nearly impossible to escape for people of all races whose lives intersect with police and the courts.

Consider this reality: an unexpected $400 expense could be disastrous for about 40 percent of American families, according to the Federal Reserve. Whether it is a car repair or a court cost, the threat to financial security often starts a domino effect leading to loss of housing, displaced children, transportation difficulties and job loss. Even one of these effects jeopardizes the stability of the individual and their community.

Our legal system should not be a major cause of this type of economic hardship. Yet across Missouri, our courts too often function as de facto debtors’ prisons for an entire segment of our population. These practices compromise a significant part of our workforce, lock families in cyclical poverty and create conditions for escalating violent crime.

Change will also make us more, not less, safe. Contact with the criminal justice system makes an individual 80 percent more likely to commit future offenses, and yet we perpetuate a structure that traps those who have committed low-level offenses in an unnecessarily punitive cycle that extracts harsh financial tolls and does nothing to improve public safety. Because of how the legal system currently deals with those trapped in the justice system for even minor offenses— holding them on unaffordable bail and levying harsh fines--people who otherwise may return to become contributing members of their community are more likely to graduate to violence. This costs taxpayers money, diverts police resources better spent fighting violent crime, and erodes communities.

Central to our approach is to build a system for deferred prosecution and diversion treatment. We are designing our prosecutor-led program to increase public safety while reducing incarceration. It aims to allow individuals to accept responsibility for their behavior while participating in treatment that may lower the chances they will be involved in criminal activity in the future and provide the public health response that we need. Additionally, the program will lessen costs arising from unnecessary prosecutions that currently clog our courts and jails.

It is not lost on me that this Black History Month is the first time St. Louis County has an African American as prosecuting attorney. Residents of every color, from every community, overwhelmingly voted for the changes that my office is implementing.

Prosecutorial discretion is vast but the societal improvements our region deserves will require support from more than just one office. We will continue to need help from people of goodwill throughout our community.

As attorneys and leaders in our community, it is incumbent upon us to fight injustice everywhere so that all may know equal treatment under the law. If you find yourself generally in agreement with my actions, I ask that you commit to sharing your insight and opening dialogues with those who may not fully understand the factors in play. If you find yourself questioning my views, I ask that you keep an open mind and look more closely at the need for criminal justice reform. We are not always going to agree, but I am committed to transparency and to correcting course when necessary.

The inequities currently operating within our justice system must be reformed in order for our region to reclaim economic vibrancy, educational opportunity and equal justice. We all have a part to play and I welcome you to stand with me as this next chapter of St. Louis history is written.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, the Saint Louis Bar Foundation or BAMSL’s Board of Governors. Acceptance of advertising and new product information does not imply endorsement of products or services advertised or listed nor statements concerning them.


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